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TODAY’S STORY
9 Dec
,
2022

Single-Threaded Leadership

"The best way to doom a strategic initiative is to make it someone’s part-time job."

Single-threaded leadership is an innovation developed by Amazon that emphasizes the importance of a single person, unencumbered by competing responsibilities, owning and leading a team towards the achievement of a specific goal.

The aim of single-threaded leadership is to incentivize 100% focus on a single strategic project, and more importantly, equip the leader with the power to say "No" to other adjacent responsibilities that may steal her focus away from this project.

And the core insight behind this approach is that teams that are autonomous and led by a clear mandate are able to align themselves quickly towards their goal.

The single-threaded leadership process is straightforward.

First, each team must be headed by a "single threaded leader" who has no other responsibilities aside from leading the team. This ensures that the leader is fully dedicated to the success of the team and its goals.

Second, the team must be separable and autonomous, with little to no dependencies on other teams. This allows the team to move quickly and make decisions without requiring lengthy coordination or approvals.

Third, each team must be established with a clear composition, charter, and set of evaluation metrics. This ensures that everyone on the team understands their roles and responsibilities, as well as the metrics by which their success will be measured.

Fourth, the team must have a well-defined purpose that guides its efforts. For example, the Inventory Planning team at Amazon may have a purpose of answering the question, "How much inventory should we buy of a given product and when should we buy it?" This purpose provides a clear direction for the team and helps to focus their efforts.

Finally, the boundaries of ownership must be well understood. This means that each team must understand the areas of responsibility that fall under their purview, as well as the areas that are owned by other teams.

For example, the Inventory Planning team may ask the Forecasting team for an estimate of demand for a particular product, and then use that information as input for making a buying decision. By understanding these boundaries, teams can avoid duplication of effort and focus on their own areas of responsibility.

But single-threaded leadership is not unique to Amazon.

For example, in the technology industry, Google has implemented a single-threaded leadership approach in many of its teams. Each team is led by a dedicated leader who is focused solely on the success of that team, and the team is given the autonomy to make decisions and execute with speed.

In healthcare, the Cleveland Clinic has also embraced the single-threaded leadership approach. The clinic has established teams of doctors and nurses who are focused on specific areas of care, such as cardiology or oncology. Each team is led by a dedicated leader, and is given the autonomy to make decisions and provide high-quality care to their patients.

In retail, Walmart has implemented single-threaded leadership in many of its stores. Each store is led by a dedicated store manager who is responsible for all aspects of the store's operations, from managing the inventory to hiring and training employees. The store manager is given the autonomy to make decisions and take actions that are in the best interests of the store and its customers.

What single-threaded leadership primarily allows from a practical perspective is authority. This means,

  • The authority to say "No" to other unrelated projects and work
  • The authority to best incorporate local context and knowledge and veto centralized decisions and dictats in favour of those that are relevant to the local environment
  • The authority to take bold decisions, relatively unencumbered by other parts of the organization
  • The authority to leverage resources and capabilities of adjacent teams as the leader sees fit

But of course, all this authority also comes with its own tradeoffs like

  • Complete accountability on the single-threaded leader to see the project to its success
  • A clear set of evaluation metrics that make the question of performance quite straightforward and almost binary. Either you are successful or you aren't, there are fewer grey areas
  • Sole focus on end outcomes and KPIs instead of project tasks and activities that got shipped
  • An inability to dabble in multiple interesting projects happening across the company

Not all projects need a single-threaded leader, only those that are completely new product lines, or zero-to-one initiatives that require a fair dose of courage and the necessary authority and resources to make it happen.

For example, a product that is simply an extension or improvement on an existing one and caters to the same target market may not need single-threaded leadership.

Rather, this leadership style and format is best suited to new blue ocean initiatives where a lot of knowledge and research work need to happen from scratch: activities that are relatively harder and would not get done if a hard emphasis weren't laid on them, along with proportional support in resources.

And it's a great way to run multiple fast-paced startups even within fairly old conglomerates, with small siloed teams taking full ownership of their project and dedicated fully to it, without the sluggishness and bureaucracy of the larger corporate adding friction to the project.

So, if a new zero-to-one initiative is just not finding momentum but promises potentially huge upsides if successful, you might want to implement the single-threaded leadership process to ensure the work gets done.

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